The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has placed a “pause” on the newly-minted Disinformation Governance Board; its first executive director, Nina Jankowicz, has resigned.
The board’s existence, which was announced just three weeks ago, prompted serious concerns from many civil libertarians and inspired Ministry of Truth comparisons. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas tried—and largely failed—to address these concerns by noting that the board would serve in merely an advisory capacity and not have any actual power to police speech. That the Disinformation Governance Board did a bad job of communicating information about itself did not exactly instill confidence, and evidently DHS has now realized that the entire project is a bad idea.
It’s unclear whether plans for the board will be un-paused in the future; Jankowicz had initially decided to resign, reconsidered when she was told the pause might be temporary, and then ultimately left anyway.
This news comes from an exclusive report by The Washington Post‘s Taylor Lorenz, whose scoop is buried underneath layers of pro-government verbiage. Lorenz’s story excessively flatters Jankowicz—she is glamorized as “well-known” in the field, having “extensive experience,” and “well-regarded” in just the first two paragraphs—while ignoring legitimate criticism of this so-called expert’s track record. Indeed, there is zero mention, none whatsoever, of the fact that Jankowicz was flagrantly wrong about the pivotal “disinformation” episode of the 2020 election cycle: the Hunter Biden laptop story.
For WaPo, the story is not that DHS shuttered the Disinformation Governance Board—the real story is that right-wing “coordinated online attacks” achieved this outcome after subjecting Jankowicz to an “unrelenting barrage of harassment.”
“Within hours of news of her appointment, Jankowicz was thrust into the spotlight by the very forces she dedicated her career to combating,” writes Lorenz.
She concedes that the board’s name was “ominous” and details about its specific mission were “scant.” But most of the article focuses on the tenor of the criticism of Jankowicz.
“Jankowicz was on the receiving end of the harshest attacks, with her role mischaracterized as she became a primary target on the right-wing Internet,” writes Lorenz. “She has been subject to an unrelenting barrage of harassment and abuse while unchecked misrepresentations of her work continue to go viral.”
That’s not even close to all of it:
Jankowicz’s experience is a prime example of how the right-wing Internet apparatus operates, where far-right influencers attempt to identify a target, present a narrative and then repeat mischaracterizations across social media and websites with the aim of discrediting and attacking anyone who seeks to challenge them. It also shows what happens when institutions, when confronted with these attacks, don’t respond effectively.
“These smears leveled by bad-faith, right-wing actors against a deeply qualified expert and against efforts to better combat human smuggling and domestic terrorism are disgusting,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates told The Post on Tuesday.
DHS staffers have also grown frustrated. With the department’s suspension of intra-departmental working groups focused on mis-, dis- and mal-information, some officials said it was an overreaction that gave too much credence to bad-faith actors. A 15-year veteran of the department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, called the DHS response to the controversy “mind-boggling.” “I’ve never seen the department react like this before,” he said.
Yet more still:
Experts say that right-wing disinformation and smear campaigns regularly follow the same playbook and that it’s crucial that the public and leaders of institutions, especially in the government, the media and educational bodies, understand more fully how these cycles operate.
The campaigns invariably start with identifying a person to characterize as a villain. Attacking faceless institutions is difficult, so a figurehead (almost always a woman or person of color) is found to serve as its face. Whether that person has actual power within that institution is often immaterial. By discrediting those made to represent institutions they seek to bring down, they discredit the institution itself.
Harassment and reputational harm is core to the attack strategy. Institutions often treat reputational harm and online attacks as a personnel matter, one that unlucky employees should simply endure quietly.
Jankowicz’s case is a perfect example of this system at work, said Emerson T. Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “They try to define people by these single, decontextualized moments,” Brooking said. “In Nina’s case it’s a few TikTok videos, or one or two comments out of thousands of public appearances. They fixate on these small instances and they define this villain.”
That’s the explicit message of the article, and it’s hammered home over and over again: expressing concerns about Jankowicz and the Disinformation Governance Board is an act of sabotage by bad-faith right-wing harassers against a noble public servant. The Washington Post does not grapple with legitimate criticisms of Jankowicz. The article doesn’t even acknowledge that any exist. Bad people oppose Jankowicz, in the Post‘s framing, and if you oppose Jankowicz, you’re probably one of them.
Yet there is good reason to be skeptical of both the Disinformation Governance Board and Jankowicz’s fitness to run it. Informal efforts to police disinformation on social media are beset with serious challenges, as moderators and fact-checkers routinely make odious mistakes: Just today, Facebook dubiously censored a recipe for homemade baby formula. The social media site’s fact-checkers have previously flagged Reason articles as spreading false information, only to later admit the articles in question were accurate. John Stossel, host of Stossel TV and a contributor to Reason, is currently suing Facebook for characterizing his videos as misleading, even though fact-checkers eventually conceded he was right.
Government disinformation cops are no better; time and time again, public health officials circulated false information about COVID-19, and suppressed perfectly legitimate discussion of the theory that the virus originated from a lab leak. And when The New York Post reported on the salacious contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop just weeks before the election, the story was widely dismissed by so-called disinformation experts and government security experts on grounds that they presumed it to be Russian malfeasance. “Hunter Biden Story Is Russian Disinfo, Dozens of Former Intel Officials Say,” reported Politico back in October 2020.
Jankowicz repeatedly made public statements indicating that she held this view, too. She shared national security officials’ “high confidence” that the Hunter Biden story was part of a Russian influence campaign. She described the idea that the laptop had been left behind at a repair shop as “a fairy tale.” This was a critical test of whether disinformation experts could check their innate tendency to ascribe everything unfavorable to the Democratic Party as Russian nefariousness, and they utterly failed. Jankowicz failed as well.
Somewhere in Lorenz’s article, amid the repetitive praising of Jankowicz’s qualifications, anonymously sourced lamentations that DHS will no longer be able to recruit effectively, and broad characterization of criticism as nothing more than sexist harassment, perhaps that failure deserved a mention. The article reads like it was ghostwritten by Jankowicz herself, which makes the underlying scoop less impressive: It’s easy to get a government official to cooperate for a news article when the news article takes the form of PR.